IN ANCIENT DAYS, all this world was veiled by a green wood. Now tree trunks scatter the land like bones and dead cities fall to ruin beneath a dull unseeing sky.
Someday even they will be gone. But dust is not the only thing that lingers here. Along a certain mountain ridge, the stumps of forgotten beacons trace a path for ships to follow, up to the belly of a volcanic crater which rests among the mountains like a kettle among coals. Resting in that crater is the last bright thing that remains in this world, a shining mineral eye among the debris: the great tiled dome of an Echentyri hatchery complex.
The serpent conquerors built this place long ago, to incubate their successors. Now, amid the desolation of their empire, the hatchery tiles still gleam, scattering the sun’s glare into a thousand dancing points.
The hatchery is still and quiet but not altogether empty. The past sleeps soundly in these halls, and may yet wake.
* * *
The first person to set eyes upon the hatchery in three thousand years was one Qanwa Shuthmili, sitting in the cockpit of a little hired ship as it soared above the ridge.
The corpse of a world should have been a sad and terrible thing to see, but Shuthmili clung to the rail of the cutter and laughed in triumph. Her unbraided hair streamed behind her like a black pennant, and she bared her teeth against the wind as if she might take a bite of it.
She hugged her knees in triumph and turned to Csorwe, beside her in the pilot’s seat.
“There!” she said. “My goodness, it’s really all still there, the dome and everything, the whole complex!”
“You’ve got a whole complex,” said Tal, who had his feet propped up on the back of Csorwe’s seat despite her regular objections. Even he sounded pleased, and so he should, because their business depended on success, and even if you didn’t care about ancient history, the fact that the hatchery complex really was here meant they were probably going to get paid.
Csorwe took them in, landing the cutter with a bump. The crater was every bit as deserted as it seemed, a shallow bowl of dull stone sheltering the complex. The hatchery was even bigger than it had looked from the air, a cathedral of white marble and blue tile. The blue dome looked more like the sky than the actual sky overhead, which was a streaky yellow-grey.
The people of lost Echentyr had been giant serpents, and their buildings were all on a scale to match. The arch in the wall of the complex was fifty feet high. Beyond its cool shadow, sunlight pooled in a courtyard just as enormous.
“Even the Survey Office didn’t know this place existed,” said Shuthmili. “We might be the first people to walk here since the fall of Echentyr.”
“That never gets old for you, does it?” said Csorwe with affection, as she shouldered her backpack.
“I can’t believe nobody’s looted this place,” said Tal, running his fingertips over the tiled wall. The tiles were a brilliant sea-blue, minutely patterned with a design of interlocking spirals. “Even these would sell,” he added, tapping one. “People would love it. Do up your dining room with some genuine snake rubbish.”
Tal was Csorwe’s oldest friend and oldest enemy. Next to each other they made a perfect contrast: Csorwe was only just taller than Shuthmili, square and compact; Tal was a tall, stringy Tlaanthothei with twitchy petal-shaped ears.
“We aren’t looters, we’re surveyors,” said Shuthmili. She had shed a lot of scruples, but some of them really stuck. “We sell maps.”
“To looters,” said Tal. “It’s not our fault looting is all we know.”
“It’s not—they’re scholars—oh, put a lid on it, Talasseres,” she said, seeing that Tal was grinning at her. “It’s not my fault you have a lack of transferrable skills.”
She consoled herself that the ruined Echentyri colony worlds were famously sparse pickings for looters anyway: acres of dust and damage, with usually nothing to show for it but a few clay cylinders and a scattering of serpent bones.
“People don’t like stealing from Echentyri worlds, anyway,” said Csorwe, flicking Tal in the shoulder as she passed him. “You heard them back on Cricket Station. We’re courting a horrible snake curse just visiting here.”
“Don’t let the professor hear you,” said Tal.
“I am fairly certain Professor Tvelujan would think a horrible snake curse was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to her,” said Shuthmili.
“Speak of the devil,” muttered Tal, as Professor Tvelujan’s minuscule cutter landed beside theirs. The engine puttered out, engulfed by the immense, encompassing silence of the dead world.
Tvelujan was their client, an elderly historian from a university in distant Tarasen. She wore a hat with a translucent veil to shield her bone-white hair and skin from the sun. As she approached them, she walked with the slow swimming gait of one enchanted, and the veil billowed behind her like the mantle of a jellyfish.
“All right, Professor? Need a hand?” said Csorwe, who generally treated Tvelujan with the patient, resigned cheerfulness one might use on a fragile relative.
“No assistance needed,” said Tvelujan, in her small quiet voice. It was odd for a client to want to join them—their job was to chart the place and squash any obvious threats, to make way for the researchers who would follow—but Tvelujan’s devotion to her subject came before all else. “The most wonderful. An intact hatchery. Never have I imagined it.” Her Tarasene accent became more marked when she was emotional, though she still spoke in little more than a whisper.
Shuthmili checked through her notebooks, while Tal and Csorwe counted off their provisions. They always carried more than they needed, since there was nothing growing and no running water in the dead world.
Tvelujan, meanwhile, had her own rituals to conduct. Before they entered the hatchery proper, she knelt on the stones of the courtyard and poured out an offering of scented oil, murmuring prayers in the sibilant language of Echentyr.
Copyright © 2022 by A. K. Larkwood